If you already know who Guthrie Govan is, then you were probably just as excited as I was to hear about the new Aristocrats album released back on September 13th this year. If you don’t know who Guthrie is, then it’s high time you learned. A quick YouTube search and you’ll see what I mean.
After all, that’s all it took to convince bassist Bryan Bellar (Steve Vai, Dweezil Zappa, Dethklok) and drummer Marco Minnemann (Adrian Belew, UKZ, Necrophagist, Paul Gilbert) that Guthrie would be a good last minute fill-in for a trio gig they had booked at the Annual Anaheim Bass Bash. Fusion guitar great, Greg Howe, who was originally supposed to do the gig, was suddenly unable to attend.
Well, as fate would have it Guthrie was available. The three musical juggernauts took the stage at JT Schmid’s on January 14th, blew away the audience. The band was quite pleased with their performance too, as Guthrie reported in an interview with Guitar Player Magazine, “The chemistry was so great that when we came off stage we all said to each other, simultaneously, ‘This is working. We should record this.'” Check out the you-tube video (at the bottom of this article) of the night in mention.
And so it was, out of a serendipitous happenstance The Aristocrats were born! The three got together in Chicago back April this year to record their debut disc. Their self titled album contains 9 tracks, 3 songs from each member, and clocks in at a very substantial 60 minutes. There’s a lot of meat to this music and you’ll probably have to take some time to let it digest before it really starts to pull you in.
What I love most about this album is its organic sound. There are hardly any overdubs at all, and absolutely no filler tracks. Instead, the band relies on their amazing abilities to play exactly the right thing at the right time to fill out the mix. Basically, what you would see on stage is what you hear: guitar, bass and drums. In that way this record was produced more like a high quality live record than a studio release.
When you listen to this album and realize no one player is ever at anytime hiding behind a protective curtain of studio production tricks, your jaw will drop! At least mine did.
But it’s not the virtuosic abilities of each musician alone that makes this record worthy of one’s attention. Which, by the way, is what I think to be one of the major pitfalls that progressive rock and fusion artists sometimes fall into. The music may be incredibly difficult to play, sure, but it’s not always very interesting to listen to. The Aristocrats don’t just avoid this pitfall, they run right over it without even breaking stride.
You can hear the chemistry that Guthrie talked about. You can tell each musician is listening to one another, especially on Furtive Jack and See You Next Tuesday, where the improvised sections get pretty intense. There’s an obvious interplay there that comes off as very natural and musical. And despite the fact that all three players take plenty of opportunities to flex their technical muscles, you don’t even really notice the complexity because the music is so captivating. These aren’t your typical “shredder” tunes. There’s depth to this music as it’s chalk filled with tons of stylistic twists and turns, catchy melodies, smooth dynamic transition, jarring juxtapositions, and even some tongue in cheek humor.
A good example of that humor is the first track on the record, Boing…I’m in the Back. The intro, which sounds kind of like a lo-fi demo, will probably unsettle your expectations for a minute, but rest assured the band is just having a little fun with you. A campy guitar melody, an excessive envelope-filter bass effect, and even death metal blast beats punctuate this quirky jam and definitely displays the goofier side of Guthrie and the gang.
There’s a dirty twist to The Aristocrats’ humor too (perhaps you’ve heard of the joke with the same name), evident in track titles such as Blues Fuckers, which the band themselves describes as a complete defiling of every blues form imaginable, and Sweaty Knockers, a shameless and raucous “pole-dance” rock jam. I don’t know about you, but I chuckled a little when I read these song titles.
But don’t let the cheekiness of a title like Sweaty Knockers take away from just how serious the playing is. Guthrie demonstrates how much of a chameleon he can be with his tone and style in this one tune alone, as he moves seamlessly between blow -out-the-windows distortion, light, sultry legato leads, jazzy, finger picked chords and country twang. The rhythm guitar tone on the intro is totally killer too, and can only be described as raunchy, dirty and absolutely bad-ass! I’ve never heard a simple E power chord sound so cool. (By the way, if you’re interested in learning the opening guitar part, check out this link).
There’s no shortage of memorable melodies on this release. One such notable track is Bad Asteroid, which I think sounds more akin to the music on Guthrie’s solo album, Erotic Cakes. After all, it is a song that he had in his back pocket for several years before finding the perfect time to pull it out. It’s a great song and the melody in this track is quite infectious.
I Want A Parrot is another catchy tune and another one of my favorites. The opening guitar riff played by Guthrie is later mimicked in Bryan’s bass line, which in turn becomes the foundation for groove underneath another melody. This track is a real highlight for Bryan, and contains some fantastic playing.
I think you’ll find that the bass will command your attention quite a bit on this record too. Everything Bryan plays is just perfectly locked in with Marco and supportive of the guitar. I think he truly outdoes himself on Furtive Jack, in which a tango groove evolves into a furious jazz romp. There’s some tremendous bass playing on this cut, and done with such creativity.
Of course, Marco is not one to disappoint either. Just check out his amazing jazz-fusion chops on See You Next Tuesday. And he really gets to shine with two awesome drum solos on Sweaty Knockers and Get it Like That.
Last but not least, Flatlands is my favorite song on the record. It’s such a beautifully performed, passionate, bluesy piece of music. The main theme reminds me of something Eric Johnson might do, while during the solos, Guthrie seems to be channelling a bit of Hendrix and Wes Montgomery. Guthrie uses a gorgeous clean tone all the way through and really proves he does not have to shred to impress.
Guthrie fans should love this record. If you’ve never heard of Guthrie, it’s a fine album to get to know him. I’m sure fans of Bryan or Marco will dig it too. You don’t have to be a guitar player to like this band, there’s something for everyone to appreciate. The Aristocrats are for music lovers all around.